Just a few pond shots

This Green Heron found an underwater perch for a fishing platform, at Indian Riverside Park in Jensen Beach.

Is something amazing, White Ibis?

White Ibis at Indian Riverside Park, one of my favorite spots to get close to birds.

This male Florida Mottled Duck was in a hurry and making a duck wake in the pond.

Some of the ducks were chasing each other around. Spring is coming!

Valentine birds

Sandhill Cranes are going two-by-two.

I spotted these two at a local elementary school as kids were getting out in the afternoon. They don’t care about people being near.

Sandhill cranes are almost four feet tall – taller than many children.

They have a distinctive red patch of bare skin on top of their heads, feathers of a soft gray color, and pretty red-gold eyes.

Two subspecies of sandhill crane occur in Florida.  The Florida sandhill crane (G. c. pratensis), numbering 4,000 to 5,000, is a non-migratory year-round breeding resident.  They are joined every winter by 25,000 migratory greater sandhill cranes (G. c. tabida), the larger of the two subspecies. The greater sandhill crane winters in Florida but nests in the Great Lakes region. 

There is a small wetland adjacent to this school. It may be home for these two. I think they are resident birds. In this area north of the St. Lucie River and near the Savannas, In Stuart, Jensen Beach and Port St. Lucie, I see Sandhill Cranes all year, with chicks following them around in spring.

Sandhill Cranes mate for life.

Sandhill Cranes are omnivorous, eating insects and larvae, snails, amphibians and reptiles, small mammals, seeds, berries and tubers.

Big bird, small pond

A weird and wondrous bird was paddling the pond at Indian Riverside Park last Friday, an American White Pelican.

Brown Pelicans are abundant but White Pelicans are seen far less often. They are winter visitors to Florida and in this county usually hang around by Lake Okeechobee. This was the first time I’ve seen one out here by the coast. Maybe the west wind blew him here.

I went after him with my camera. First I had to navigate the White Ibises underfoot.

Also underfoot, a Muscovy duck.

I circled the whole pond, following the pelican, till he came back to near where I first saw him. He and a fisherman were considering each other.

He was dip fishing which is the way White Pelicans get their fish dinner, as opposed to the dramatic dive of the Brown Pelican.

A scoop of scooped up water and fish.

Then the pelican presses its bill against its chest to squeeze out the water, leaving only fish in there, ready for swallowing.

There is something a little swan-like about them, except those beaks… which are 12 to 15 inches long!

The American white pelican rivals the trumpeter swan, with a similar overall length, as the longest bird native to North America. Both very large and plump, it has an overall length of about 50–70 in (130–180 cm), courtesy of the huge beak which measures 11.3–15.2 in (290–390 mm) in males and 10.3–14.2 in (260–360 mm) in females. It has a wingspan of about 95–120 in (240–300 cm). The species also has the second largest average wingspan of any North American bird, after the California condor.

They usually weigh between 11 and 20 pounds. That’s a big bird.

White pelicans

New bird for the blog: American White Pelican!

We found a small group of them at the Port Mayaca lock and dam between Lake Okeechobee and the St. Lucie Canal, in Martin County. It is a consistent winter location for these unusual birds.

American White Pelicans breed mainly on isolated islands in freshwater lakes or, in the northern Great Plains, on ephemeral islands in shallow wetlands.

And….

In the winter, they favor coastal bays, inlets, estuaries, and sloughs where they can forage in shallow water and rest on exposed spots like sandbars. 

There were two groups of White Pelicans at the dam last Saturday. This group was resting and preening on a sort of a sandbar.

Note the Snowy Egret on the left, for size. White Pelicans are one of the largest birds in North America, almost one-third bigger than Brown Pelicans.

Another small group of White Pelicans was dip fishing nearby. So different from the way Brown Pelicans dive.

On the water they dip their pouched bills to scoop up fish, or tip-up like an oversized dabbling duck. Sometimes, groups of pelicans work together to herd fish into the shallows for easy feeding.

Strange and lovely birds, wonderful to get a good look at them.

One man’s work to protect White Pelicans from plume hunters in the early 1900s led to the creation of the first U.S. National Wildlife Refuge at Pelican Island in Vero Beach. Read the story at Atlas Obscura: Pelican Island.

Unique place

We love the ocean around here.

This is just one part of a gorgeous large sculpture by renowned local artist Geoffrey C. Smith, on display in the new Ocean EcoCenter at Florida Oceanographic on Hutchinson Island in Stuart, Florida.

This is a view of the new Ocean EcoCenter from the other side of the Gamefish Lagoon. It opened last July. Read about it here and here.

Inside, there was a lot to learn about. Or you could just flow through and get a quick general impression.

This is a view from the observation deck on top of the center, looking northwest down into the gamefish lagoon. The pavilion on the left side of the photo overlooks the sea turtle enclosures.

Beyond the green of the mangroves is the Indian River Lagoon, most biodiverse estuary in North America.

This photo from the third floor deck does not do justice to what is swimming around in the gamefish lagoon. Just go see for yourself!

The Gamefish Lagoon is a 750,000 gallon saltwater aquarium. It is home to over 20 different fish species, including stingrays and nurse sharks, and 4 non-releasable sea turtles.

More info plus livestream FISHCAM HERE.

View to the northeast. You can catch a glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean a short distance away.

Salt water from the ocean gets pumped into the lagoon.

Here’s a fish from a tank inside the EcoCenter. It is some type of filefish I believe. But this is a bird blog not a fish blog so let’s cut to the chase…

There are nature trails through mangroves out to the Indian River Lagoon. MAP.

The southern section of trails was closed because it was underwater so we went out and back on the northern trail, with a series of boardwalks over the wettest parts.

We came upon a strange little gathering of Tricolored Herons. There were actually five that we spotted here, walking in and out of the shadows, standing on logs.

I have never seen even two Tricolored Herons together at one time! I have seen them with other wading birds, and ducks and anhingas, but never another member of their own species. Breeding season is late spring and summer, I believe, so it’s not that.

I got a good look at the elegant Egretta tricolor.

The Tricolored Heron is a sleek and slender heron adorned in blue-gray, lavender, and white. The white stripe down the middle of its sinuous neck and its white belly set it apart from other dark herons. This fairly small heron wades through coastal waters in search of small fish, often running and stopping with quick turns and starts, as if dancing in a ballet. It builds stick nests in trees and shrubs, often in colonies with other wading birds. It’s common in southern saltmarshes and was once known as the Louisiana Heron.

Three long toes pointing forward and one behind seems to do the trick for herons. It’s the same arrangement as perching birds but their much longer toes are good for spreading their weight out as they walk on soft surfaces.

Also elongated compared to other birds: their bills! Good for harpooning fish.

On the walk back, we passed the northern side of the Gamefish Lagoon where this sea turtle was maneuvering into a shallow sunny spot. I believe it’s one of the Green Turtles at Florida Oceanographic, but I’m not sure if it’s Hank, Abe or Turtwig.

First Day Walk, with catbirds

Catbirds are abundant in Savannas Preserve right now.

I could hear them more than see them, but sometimes one or two would pop up out of the shrubs and palmettos and perch in plain sight.

Catbirds are gray with black caps and a telltale rusty red patch under their tails.

This is gallberry, in the holly family of plants.

A catbird’s diet is about 50% fruit and berries. They also eat a variety of insects, spiders, worms and ants.

Catbirds nest in much of North America and are winter visitors to Florida and Central America. It is likely that the Florida birds nest in the mid-Atlantic and New England and Midwestern birds head south to Mexico and beyond.

A lot of human snowbirds are flocking here this winter from other states. But there were no other cars in the small gravel parking lot of the southern entrance to Savannas Preserve State Park, off Jensen Beach Boulevard in Jensen Beach just after 8 a.m. this morning.

I had been up since 5 a.m. since I love mornings, new days, fresh starts, new years.

The Gray Catbird belongs to the genus Dumetella, which means “small thicket.” And that’s exactly where you should go look for this little skulker.

(Have I mentioned how much I love Cornell Lab of Ornithology? They are my main source of bird knowledge and quotes via All About Birds. I support them with my annual membership . Or donate HERE to make a difference for the future of birds.)

The preserve was intensely peaceful this morning – just the sound of distant traffic and the close-by gentle mewing of these birds. (Sometimes the sound they make is more like the waah of a quiet-ish baby.)

It’s a mewing time of year for catbirds, not a singing time. In nesting season the males are as creative in their songs as other members of the mimid family.

Holly berries (food for catbirds) are Christmas-seasonal here in Florida too. I think this is Dahoon holly.

Here is where I took a detour off the main trail in search of the edge of a wetland and maybe a Wilson’s snipe, a bird that has been eluding my efforts to photograph it for a few years now.

New year, new bird was my plan. Alas! I did not find a snipe. So much for my Snipe hunt.

Low sun and a misty morning made spider webs visible. It’s been warm and humid for early winter.

Some webs were more geometric than others.

The edge of the first wetland was too muddy and so I tried a second trail that branched off the main trail.

The combination of crispy dry plant life and mud underfoot is characteristic of the lower-elevation seasonal wetlands in the Savannas.

I saw signs of wild pigs on my walk, and I found a couple of what looked like pig traps. There was a bit of grain left in this one, but the “gate” was held open with a strap and a couple of S hooks, so I’m not sure how the trap works.

Feral pigs are a problem in the Savannas and pretty much all of Florida.

…the problem can be traced to 1539 when Hernando DeSoto brought hogs into southwest Florida, and some of them found freedom in the New World. Nearly 500 years later, there are some 3 million descendants of these “pioneer pigs” across the nation.

Something made a slippery splash near here, like a small gator, big snake, maybe an otter. Or a small pig? I did not see it but I remained quite vigilant, stepping carefully, scanning near and far.

I believe this type of attention to our surroundings is something we are losing to screens and the Great Indoors, so I like to refresh my skills now and then.

When the trail degraded into a network of pig paths, all dug up and snout-rooted, I decided to backtrack to more comfortable walking.

One of the many problems caused by the pigs…

Rooting — digging for foods below the surface of the ground — destabilizes the soil surface, uprooting or weakening native vegetation, damaging lawns and causing erosion. Their wallowing behavior destroys small ponds and stream banks, which may affect water quality.

This is a yellow milkwort.

It was growing in the middle of one of the lesser-used trails I walked this morning. It’s a Florida native annual herbaceous wildflower, and so named because it was thought that milkwort growing in cow fields would cause cows to give more milk.

I think it looks like a little yellow fireworks explosion. Happy New Year!

When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world. – John Muir

Fishing and sunning, what a life

Double-crested Cormorant at Indian Riverside Park. This one is a juvenile – its feathers are lighter in color than an all-black adult.

Note the little “fishing hook” at the end of its bill.

Time to dry the feathers!

Double-crested cormorants are gregarious birds that are almost always near water. Their main two activities are fishing and resting, with more than half their day spent on the latter. When at rest, a cormorant will choose an exposed spot on a bare branch or a windblown rock, and often spread its wings out, which is thought to be a means of drying their feathers after fishing. (Cormorants have less preen oil than other birds, so their feathers can get soaked rather than shedding water like a duck’s. Though this sounds like a liability, this is thought to be an adaptation that helps cormorants hunt underwater more effectively.)

Ahoy, bird!

Just a duck

She preens.

I was standing at the edge of the pond at Indian Riverside Park yesterday morning, trying desperately to get a decent shot of a pair of (unidentified) hawks flying from from tree to tree, sometimes swooping low across the water. Or maybe I could get that noisy kingfisher, flashing past then perching and rattle-calling… but it just a bit too fast and far off.

It was one of those days where you don’t get the things you are trying hard to get.

But here was this duck, practically at my feet.

“Look at me. I am beautiful,” she said. And so I did.

Florida Mottled Ducks are relatives of mallards but the male does not have a green head and looks a lot like the female. You can tell them apart by the color of the bill: males’ are yellow and females’ are orange.

The Florida mottled duck, often called the Florida duck or Florida mallard, is a unique subspecies found only in peninsular Florida. This nonmigratory duck spends its entire life within the state’s brackish and freshwater marshes, ponds, lakes, rivers, canals, ditches, and mosquito impoundments on the east and west coasts and inland.

Bird eyes

This is Artie. He’s an educational ambassador at Treasure Coast Wildlife Center. He can only stare straight ahead. No, I mean it. Like all owls, his eyes cannot move. He turns his head when he wants to look in a different direction.

Great Horned Owls like Artie have the largest eyes of all North American birds – they are almost the size of a human eye.

More amazing owl eye facts, from GreatHornedOwl.net

The size as well as the position of the eye is perfect for hunting at night. The bigger lens means that the owl can absorb as much light as possible. That is how the bird manages to see things even in low-light conditions.

More on owl eyeballs (actually eye tubes!)

Bald Eagles also have large, fixed eyes, like owls. So weird, right? In fact, it’s true that ALL BIRDS have very limited eye movement in the socket.

Birds have the largest eyes relative to their size in the animal kingdom, and movement is consequently limited within the eye’s bony socket.

But eagles do have eye superpowers that humans don’t. According to the webpage on Eagle Eyes at the National Eagle Center site…

Eagles use both monocular and binocular vision, meaning they can use they eyes independently or together depending on what they are looking at.

An eagle eye has two focal points (called “fovea” [singular] or “foveae” [plural]) one of which looks forward and the other to the side at about a 45 degree angle. These two foveae allow eagles to see straight ahead and to the side simultaneously. The fovea at 45 degrees is used to view things at long distances. An eagle can see something the size of a rabbit at more than three miles away.

And…

Eagles can distinguish more colors than humans. They can also see in the UV range of light, allowing them to see the urine trail of prey.

Like most birds, eagles have upper and lower eyelids plus a “third eyelid” called a nictitating membrane.

The nictitating membrane closes horizontally across the eye and provides moisture, protection and cleans the eye.

This eagle is Golfball. He is a permanent resident on display at TCWC. He was hit by a golf ball while perched on a tree branch at a golf course and it broke his wing. He has a partial wing amputation. When I clean his enclosure, he chirps at me.

More on eagle vision

If you swapped your eyes for an eagle’s, you could see an ant crawling on the ground from the roof of a 10-story building. You could make out the expressions on basketball players’ faces from the worst seats in the arena. Objects directly in your line of sight would appear magnified, and everything would be brilliantly colored, rendered in an inconceivable array of shades.

That sounds amazing!

Hawk eye.

Herc is a fine specimen of a Red-tailed Hawk. (Note the reddish brown tail.) He is an educational bird at TCWC. He has a partial wing injury.

Herc too has very large eyes compared to the size of the head.

The visual ability of birds of prey is legendary, and the keenness of their eyesight is due to a variety of factors. Raptors have large eyes for their size, 1.4 times greater than the average for birds of the same weight, and the eye is tube-shaped to produce a larger retinal image.

Notice also…

In most raptors, a prominent eye ridge and its feathers extend above and in front of the eye. This “eyebrow” gives birds of prey their distinctive stare. The ridge physically protects the eye from wind, dust, and debris and shields it from excessive glare.

My, what big eyes you have too!

Ali’i is a female Red-tailed Hawk at TCWC. She has a broken wing at one shoulder and is blind in one eye after being hit by a truck on King’s Highway in Martin County. She’s a big bird, but pretty easy to get up on the falconer’s glove. She’s a pro!

Another big-eyed raptor: Phoenix the Short-tailed Hawk.

Phoenix was brought to TCWC recently with a severe wing injury that eventually required amputation. She is young and adaptable, around 2 years old, and that’s part of the reason she made a good candidate for an educational bird. (You can visit Phoenix and the other educational and display birds Thursday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Group tours are available with reservations.)

Short-tailed Hawks are a tropical species ranging from Florida south into Central and South America. They are fairly uncommon in Florida (maybe only 500 of them).

Phoenix is the first one I’ve ever seen (#227 on blog sidebar), and now I get to see her every day I volunteer.

A Short-tailed Hawk “seldom perches in the open; when hunting, it regularly soars very high, where it may go unnoticed by the observer on the ground. Unlike most of the Buteo hawks, the Short-tail feeds mostly on small birds, dropping from the sky to take them by surprise.”

For size comparison, check out the eye on this Brown Pelican in the pelican enclosure at TCWC.

And perched on the top of the pelican enclosure, a wild Black Vulture keeping an eye out for any clean up opportunities.

More on Bird vision.

The perfect tool for crustacean extraction

Winter solstice today at 10:59 a.m. EST, shortest day of the year as we curve around from fall to winter and days begin slowly to lengthen again.

I like this photo for getting a good look at the orangey-pink bill of a White Ibis. This one is an adult. The juveniles are mostly brown, with white underbellies. As they mature, they get mottled with more white feathers until they are snowy white all over.

This bird was walking near the edge of the pond at Indian Riverside Park the other day, keeping an eye on me in case I was one of the humans that brings bread or popcorn to feed the birds.

The proper food for getting your ibises to glow with good health is mostly a variety of insects and crustaceans found in mud in shallow water. The ibis’s long, curved, sensitive bill is made to find and grasp its food.

White Ibises probe for insects and crustaceans beneath the surface of wetlands. They insert their bill into soft muddy bottoms and feel for prey. When they feel something, they pinch it like a tweezer, pulling out crayfish, earthworms, marine worms, and crabs. They also stab or pinch fish, frogs, lizards, snails, and newts. Many of their prey are swallowed on the spot, but for really muddy items they carry them away to wash the mud off before eating. They break harder crustaceans with their bills and remove claws from crabs and crayfish before eating them.

Best way to “feed” these birds? Preserve shallow wetlands and other natural habitats. (They will also probe for insects like beetle larvae on suburban lawns!)

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: To Feed or Not to Feed Wild Birds